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Importance of civility: AU hosts Jewish-Muslim dialogue
Washington Jewish Week / October 13, 2010

By Larry Luxner

The first time Pakistani diplomat, author and lecturer Akbar Ahmed was invited to speak at a synagogue, his deeply suspicious Muslim countrymen did all they could to dissuade him from going.

“I was invited by my great friend, Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Britain,” he said, recalling the 1999 controversy. “I literally had no idea about Jewish history, and I had never been in a synagogue. There was opposition from Muslims who were determined to prevent me from giving my talk. And there were Jewish students who also said it must not be allowed. But I did go, and from then on, the atmosphere in England changed in terms of Jewish-Muslim relations.”

Since then, Ahmed has been to shul many times — perhaps even more than some Jews.

On Monday night, Pakistan’s former high commissioner in London and the current chairman of Islamic studies at American University appeared at AU’s School of International Studies for a talk entitled “Jewish/Muslim Relations: Bridging the Divide.” On stage with him were Rabbi Bruce Lustig of Washington Hebrew Congregation and moderator John Donvan, correspondent for ABC News “Nightline.”

“What I discovered very early on was that Muslims had this element of anti-semitism running through their dialogue. We often asked what they saw as their greatest threat, and very often they’d say it’s the Jews, and they’d quote from ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ And I would tell them that this was a fiction created to denounce the Jewish people,” said Ahmed, speaking to a packed audience of 150 students and visitors.

“For me, the reality is that there are no two religions closer than Judaism and Islam. Just look at the names, the prophets, the Ten Commandments, the dietary restrictions — even genetic links,” he said. “There is so much in common, and as a Muslim, I contemplate the descendants of Abraham and I love both peoples.”

Ahmed was on hand to promote his new book, “Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam.” The 528-page volume has received rave reviews, including one from Pakistan’s Daily Times, which says the book “should be prescribed reading for all Pakistanis traveling to the U.S., especially for an education.”

Lustig, who has hosted Ahmed many times at his synagogue for interfaith events, calls “Journey into America” a great book, particularly the chapter on Jewish-Muslim relations.

“I grew up as a Jew in the Deep South, the child of a Holocaust survivor, so I knew what it felt like to be a minority,” said the Nashville-born rabbi. “We didn’t get to where we’ve gotten in race relations by people giving up and turning to their hostile impulses. And we can’t do that today.”

Lustig said what’s missing in the current Jewish-Muslim dialogue is civility — “the opportunity to sit down and listen to another human being.”

For his part, Ahmed noted that “interfaith often leaves us with a good feeling, but then we go home and nothing changes. However, just the fact that two really close friends can talk with warmth, civility and affection conveys a very powerful message.”

That’s particularly important in the wake of recent threats by Florida pastor Terry Jones to burn a stack of Korans — and Kansas preacher Fred Phelps, who disrupts military funerals with signs saying “God Hates Fags.”

“Terry Jones and Fred Phelps are men I am diametrically opposed to,” said Lustig. “I find them to be heinous, but I don’t judge all of Christianity by two men, nor should we judge all of Islam by a few people — nor should all Jews be judged by the actions of Baruch Goldstein.”

Ahmed said the frustrations of ordinary Muslims is understandable, considering the vast majority of the world’s 1.5 billion adherents of Islam live in dire poverty, in Asian and African countries plagued by corruption.

“I’m from the Muslim world and I know the problems we’re facing. Islam is going through the worst phase in his history,” he said. Our infrastructure is collapsing, there is no wisdom, no vision. We look at the Palestinian problem and it’s not solved; same with Kashmir and Chechnya. What is our future? We’ve gotten nowhere. All of this feeds into a sense of Muslim anger. It becomes very difficult to be loving and rational as Islam demands.”

One way the United States could help, the ex-diplomat suggested, is to channel assistance to educating children rather than building bombs.

“About 50 to 60 percent of U.S. aid to Muslim countries goes to the military, which is very often used against our own people. The average Pakistani sees nothing of that aid; a lot of it disappears into the pockets of our rulers,” he said. “Imagine if 50 percent of that aid could go to schools instead. It would change the very nature of the Muslim world.”

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